An Owl May Be Wise, But Sociable It Is Not

Messages from an Owl

By Max R.Terman

University of Princeton Press

217 pp., $24.94

Stripey the great horned owl should take his - oops, make that "her" - place among literature's memorable animal protagonists. Not that Max Terman's account of an intimate relationship with one of nature's less sociable creatures is a "story," in the fictional sense. This is a meticulously recorded scientific observation. But it's one appealingly interwoven with emotion and sentiment. In a word, it's readable, for ornithologist and layman alike.

The saga begins with the discovery near the Hillsboro, Kan., campus of Tabor College - where Terman teaches - of a deserted and starving owl chick. Terman, an ecologist with a heart and a curiosity as wide as the surrounding prairie, decides to adopt the orphan. Thus starts an experiment in understanding the life choices of an "imprinted" wild animal - that is, one so marked by human contact that a normal life in the woods and fields may be out of the question.

Terman feeds the owlet by hand, endlessly rounding up fresh meat - mainly trapped rodents, but even the occasional hot dog - to keep his charge happy. And happy Stripey seems, eating ravenously, testing his wings, and even feinting attack swoops on the Termans' family cats.

A devoted animal behaviorist, Terman soon has his charge outfitted with a radio transmitter that allows careful tracking of the owl's exploration of nearby farmland.

For months, Stripey regularly returns to the feeding stations established around the Termans' "solar, earth-sheltered" prairie home. The whole Terman family (Max, his wife, and two daughters) gets involved in heralding the bird's return, feeding, and, particularly Mrs. Terman, in reinstalling transmitters when old ones run down or are torn loose.

But Stripey's human bonds eventually loosen. The owl's hunting skills, which seem amazingly intact considering the volume of handouts provided by Terman, grow sharper. The bird's search for a home territory centers on a farm a few miles away, since it was clear early on that the trees and hunting grounds around the Terman home were already occupied by a vigilant horned-owl couple.

Terman records every coming and going, as well as his own emotions, as the realization grows that this once fragile creature may not only survive, but actually thrive in its natural setting. The confirmation of that comes as a kind of ecological denouement near the end of this short book. Stripey passes the final test of independence - finding a mate and reproducing.

But Terman's early assumptions about his foundling's gender were awry. Stripey's a mother, and to Terman's surprise she retains enough trust and affection for her onetime human "parent" to allow him to climb up to the nest, high in a barn, and closely examine this new generation of owlets. (Her mate, however, was not so welcoming.)

The strength of Terman's writing is an unaffected blend of feeling and precise scientific note-taking. It's not a stylistic gem, perhaps, but it could well take its place among naturalist classics. Stripey has real character, and her willingness to respond to Terman's chirps and other signs of friendship could change the image of the lone, enigmatic owl forever.

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